An Ode to African-American Greatness

An Ode to African-American Greatness

[OPINION] African-American contributions to U.S. history go way beyond the basketball court or the football field

by Benny Williams, March 6, 2018

An Ode to African-American Greatness

Undoubtedly, African-Americans have made great contributions to sports, music and entertainment. While it can be quite motivating for millennials to learn about African-American contributions to these industries, there is a segment of Black youth who are not as athletically inclined to be the next sports superstar.

Many of them do not have the singing voices and musical talent needed to excel in the entertainment field. However, some of the greatest African-American youth sit on the honor roll in the local high schools because they possess the intelligence to excel in the areas of science, mathematics, writing or other subjects.

There are plenty of African-Americans who have made great contributions to the country and the world that are not as widely acknowledged as sports figures and entertainment stars. Some of the simple conveniences we enjoy and take for granted may not have been possible without the brilliance of some great African-American innovators, engineers and inventors. Whether we were inventing something new or improving on an existing product or device, African-Americans have made meaningful and lasting contributions to society. Here are just a few that many may have never heard of.

The Traffic Light

Consider a time when you were driving and sped up to make it through a yellow light; the yellow light prevents many car accidents by warning drivers to slow down, but the idea of a warning signal has not always been a part of the traffic signal. Garrett Morgan, an African-American born in Kentucky on March 4, 1877, is whom we have to thank for the invention of the first three-position traffic signal. Morgan was granted a patent in 1923 for the three-position traffic signal that warned traffic in one direction that it is time to stop before allowing the crossing traffic to proceed. Morgan’s traffic signal was not the very first traffic signal, but it was the first one that did more than just allow stop-and-go traffic. His traffic signal concept is still widely used throughout the world, with the red, yellow and green lights! The next time you are warned that your traffic light is about to turn red, remember Garrett Morgan, a great African-American inventor!

Window Cleaner

Have you ever needed your windshield cleaned and pulled into a service station to use the hand-held window cleaner that has a sponge on one side and a squeegee on the other side? We have an African-American, Anthony L. Lewis from Evanston, Illinois, to thank for this innovation. Lewis was granted a U.S. patent for improving the former method of washing windows. Prior to Lewis’ invention, window washers would use a sponge to apply the water and soap and a scraper to remove the liquid and dry the window. This simple window cleaning device is another contribution to American society by an African-American that many do not hear much about.

The .Com Era

Before anyone realized the value of the Internet and domain registrations, one technologically savvy African-American businessman had the industry in his grasp. In 1979, Emmit McHenry created a complex computer code that allowed the public to do what is now known as “surfing the web” and to send and receive electronic mail (E-mail). Along with some partners, McHenry started a small company called Network Solutions and through a government contract secured, the sole authority to develop the system and issue web addresses ending in .com, .net, .org, .edu and .gov. McHenry brought on his friend Albert White to head up marketing. During that time, people did not realize the value of the Internet and it was difficult for Network Solutions to secure funding. Who knows if we would have email and web surfing today had it not been for the brilliance of Emmit McHenry.

The “Black Thomas Edison”

Inventor Granville Woods was known as the “Black Thomas Edison.” Born April 23, 1856 in Columbus Ohio, Woods was granted 50 or more U.S. Patents for his innovative and witty inventions. Although many of his inventions were in the area of electricity, the first patent he was granted was for the steam boiler furnace on June 3, 1884. Steam boiler furnaces are still in use in some homes today. One of the other devices for which Woods was granted a patent was his telephone transmitter. Although Alexander Graham Bell invented the telephone about ten years earlier, Woods’ device was more powerful and carried a distinct and clearer transmission over longer distances. Woods’ invention was a combination telephone and telegraph. Some physical advances Woods made with his telephone transmitter are still being used in modern telephones.

Advancements in Eye Surgery

Patricia Bath, an African-American born in New York, was granted a patent for her Laserphaco Probe in 1999. Bath’s invention is a laser apparatus used for improved cataract surgery. Bath received her Bachelor’s Degree from Hunter College in New York and went on to Howard University Medical School where she graduated with honors. The Laserphaco Probe allowed for a safer means of performing cataract surgery as well as improved on the accuracy of the surgery.

Lawn Sprinkler

African-American Inventor Joseph H. Smith improved upon the lawn sprinkler by patenting the first rotary-head lawn sprinkler in 1897 that sprayed water in two directions. In 1898, he was granted a second patent for modifications and improvements to his original design. His invention eliminated the need to drag a hose over the lawn and re-position it periodically to ensure a relatively even watering of the lawn.

I am uncertain if Garrett Morgan, Anthony Lewis, Emmit McHenry, Granville Woods, Patricia Bath or Joseph Smith could shoot a three-point shot or sing soprano, but they have definitely made their marks in history through education and science!

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